Op-Ed: Halting Evictions Is Not Enough, We Need Rent Forgiveness Now

For New Jersey and elsewhere, moratoriums on lockouts and removals are simply a Band-Aid: What’s needed is a real solution
Viktoria Zerda, left, and Lauren Harris

As of this week, 36.5 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits. In New Jersey, more than 1 million people have filed since mid-March, but the state infrastructure is hardly capable of sustaining the number of people flooding the phone lines and online forms. Nearly a third of Americans did not pay rent on April 1. With the $1,200 stimulus checks barely landing in people’s bank accounts and as New Jersey extends stay-at-home orders past the original two-week timeline to almost three months, a housing crisis undoubtedly looms on the horizon.

For those who do not qualify for stimulus checks, like the 500,000 undocumented workers in New Jersey alone, the future is even more precarious. The average renter in New Jersey pays $1,295 a month, and the average monthly mortgage is about $2,439 a month. Even with the boost of stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, New Jersey families are still figuring out ways to pay the rest of their bills without a stream of income. We must push local and state governments to recognize housing as a public-health issue. The ways that we choose to deal with housing security will determine the severity and longevity of the effects that COVID-19 will have on communities across the nation.

During the current moratorium on lockouts and removals implemented in New Jersey on March 19, renters are still expected to pay what they can, understanding that they will still be liable for any unpaid rent once the moratorium is lifted. For the nearly half-million newly unemployed New Jersey residents, this moratorium is a necessary but inadequate step toward addressing their present crisis if it is not combined with a more radical solution. This is not to mention the nearly 10,000 adults and children who are currently homeless across the state.

While it is good that local and state governments have halted evictions, this merely kicks the can down the road for a couple of months. For large swaths of vulnerable populations in New Jersey, the moratorium simply allows a buildup of back rent or debt for renters that will end in evictions anyway. After the state of emergency is lifted, the courts will be deluged with legal actions. We need to move toward forgiving rent for the length of the COVID-19 emergency.

Rent forgiveness with landlord subsidy

The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs currently has a Homelessness Prevention Program that allows renters, upon approval, to access funds equal to up to three months of back rent plus any court fees associated with an eviction proceeding. While this may be a viable resource for some New Jersey residents currently in crisis, it completely misses the mark for so many others. To be eligible for the program, a renter must have the ability to maintain rent payments after receiving the assistance and must be “legally in the United States.” This important but shortsighted attempt assumes newly unemployed renters will find work immediately following (or during) the current emergency and continues to disenfranchise and dehumanize undocumented residents in the state. New Jersey must do more during this crisis to protect the health, well-being and safety of all of its residents.

New Jersey must expand this program or create a new program to include all residents, regardless of their “legal” status or their ability to pay rent immediately following the acceptance of assistance. Rent forgiveness with a landlord subsidy would be a radical and necessary solution to this complex and convoluted problem. Some landlords are in fact obtaining relief from lenders, with a request that reciprocal relief be granted to their tenants, without governmental intervention. But this relief is still greatly dependent on access and the capacity of lenders, who are also facing unprecedented pressures during this time.

Fully forgiving rent payments and subsidizing landlords would be the innovative and “people-first” effort that this state needs. Shifting the burden off renters, allowing for the peace of mind to focus on family, health, safety and obtaining employment — while ensuring safeguards for landlords — is the only humane approach to this unprecedented dilemma. Furthermore, ensuring undocumented renters can maintain their current housing arrangements without fear of displacement is non-negotiable. Equitable access to housing for all New Jersey residents remains the most pertinent issue we face as a state — as a nation.

Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which creates a $150 billion relief fund for state and local governments, New Jersey stands to collect an estimated $3.4 billion. Funds may be used for “necessary expenditures” incurred between March 1, 2020 and Dec. 30, 2020 because of the COVID-19 emergency. States need to consider the long-lasting effects of avoiding rent forgiveness, and they must consider allocating a portion of these funds to subsidize landlords and forgive rent across the state. The landlord subsidy will ensure that tenants still have access to emergency repairs and other necessary contractual legal duties owed by their landlord.

On April 13 the New Jersey Legislature passed several measures dealing with the COVID-19 emergency, including authorizing the governor to permit emergency rent suspension, which simply suspends rent until a later time for the length of the emergency, for some small business tenants. It also allows for mortgage relief and rent reduction for certain residential property owners and tenants. This gives the governor the authority to choose to act on these measures, but he doesn’t have to. Among the bills is also a $100 million rent-relief fund for residents at risk of being evicted. Although these measures are beneficial to tenants, they still do not solve the impending housing crisis that will be caused by the current provisions.

For New Jersey and elsewhere, moratoriums on lockouts and removals are simply a Band-Aid. We need a solution.